Wildfire Management in the United States: The Evolution of a Policy Failure



Wildland fires constitute a major crisis in American environmental policy, a crisis created by a longstanding policy failure. This article explores the political processes that generated and reinforced this policy failure over time. The concepts of bounded rationality, punctuated equilibria, and self- reinforcing mechanisms are applied to study the evolution of American wildfire policy between 1905 and the present. This study finds that a self-defeating wildfire suppression policy was established in the period 1905 through 1911, and subsequently reinforced for more than five decades. This policy did not include a complementary program to counteract the gradual accumulation of flammable organic materials (fuels) that occurred in many ecosystems when fires were suppressed. The resulting fuel accumulations have greatly increased the risk of damaging, high-intensity wildfires in a range of American wildlands. A combination of fire suppression and fuel reduction programs will be needed to manage this risk in the future.